July 3 – Don’t Drink The Water

Today’s factismal: Beaver poop contains bacteria that can cause explosive diarrhea.

You have to pity the explorers who first wandered through the American Northwest. Sure, sometimes they got rich by finding huge nuggets of gold or by bringing back amazing piles of bird feathers. But most of the time, they died, often in horrible and disgusting ways. For example, many of the folks who wandered through the area that we now know as Yellowstone would accidentally kill themselves by jumping into the clear, blue waters of the area – only to discover that the water was more than 180°F!

Anyone for a nice, refreshing boil? (My camera)

Anyone for a nice, refreshing boil?
(My camera)

And then there are the hunters who would eat meat from the animals they shot. Though the muscles of many animals are safe to eat, the organs are not so good. As a matter of fact, the liver of a grizzly bear or a moose contains enough Vitamin A to kill a man! And if you think that eating plants is safer, think again. Elderberries are common in the northwest and most varieties contain glycoside which turns into cyanide when eaten; unless the berries are cooked properly, your first handful may be your last!

Ah, but at least you could drink the water, right? That pure, pure water, straight from the glaciers to your lips would be the coolest, freshest, cleanest tasting water you ever had (especially if you had lived in a town with a tanners). It could also have been the last water you ever tasted. That’s because lots of things live in the water and surprisingly few of them get out of it to go to the bathroom. For example, the common beaver, which was one of the most popular pelts to hunt, typically go while on the go as it were. So their poop sits in the water where the Giardia lamblia that infests it can get out. Though beavers have adapted to having these protozoans live in their intestines, humans have not. As a result, if you were infected by Giardia, you would have come down with diarrhea and abdominal cramps; in many cases, this could kill you particularly if you were already weak from your bear liver and elderberry diet.

Oh, dam! This water probably isn't safe to drink. (My camera)

Oh, dam! This water probably isn’t safe to drink.
(My camera)

Things are a lot safer today, but people still suffer from various diseases. And, just like it was back when we first explored the continent, it is explorers like you who are helping us discover new diseases and new treatments for old ones. Over at Patients Like Me, they help you keep track of your symptoms and offer a community of fellow patients where you can exchange ideas on treating your problems. To learn more, head over to:

July 2 – Halfway Up The Mountain

Today’s factimal: Chief Mountain was formed by erosion of a huge thrust fault.

The story of Chief Mountain near Glacier National Park starts more than 1,600,000,000 years ago when this part of the country wasn’t just flat, it was actually shaped like a huge, shallow bowl and called the Belt Sea. That bowl was full of water which was full of stromatolites; big, flat mats of blue-green goo that ate CO2 and put out oxygen. They put out so much oxygen that they caused the first mass extinction event in Earth’s history! As time went by, different things were washed down from the shores and into the Belt Sea, creating more than 18,000 ft of alternating layers of sand, limestone, siltstone, and shale. As these got buried deeper, they metamorphosed into quartzite, marble, siltite, and argillite. One section of that sediment is especially important. Known as the Appekunny Formation, this mud and siltstone layer has fossils from the oldest known animals on Earth; these critters lived here 1,400,000,000 years ago (or shortly after your dad was born).

A cross section of teh geology in Glacier National Park (Image courtesy Montana Earth Science)

A cross section of teh geology in Glacier National Park
(Image courtesy Montana Earth Science)

But the Belt Sea was too good to last. About 150,000,000 years ago, North America ran into the Farallon Plate. This started volcanoes and mountains forming on both sides of the Belt Sea and changed its name to the Western Interior Seaway, which divided North America into three parts: Appalachia, over on the East, Laramidia on the West and Canada to the North. Glacier National Park is on the edge of Laramidia, where the land met the sea. For the next few hundred million years, the water remained even as the critters in it changed. Where trilobites and hallucigenia had roamed, now there were fish, octopus-like critters known as ammonites, and sea-going reptiles known as plesiosaurs. On the shore were dinosaurs including Seismosaurus, Triceratops, and T. Rex. Over the years, more sediments washed into the sea along with the bodies of dead critters; their skeletons fell into the sediment and some were preserved as the fossils that are commonly found in the area.

And then something terrible happened. The massive forces of plate tectonics ripped an entire section of land away and created the Lewis Thrust Fault. This enormous fault pushed a slab of rock that was up to five miles thick and more than two hundred miles long nearly fifty miles into North America, creating part of the Rocky Mountain chain. Water and ice eroded the overthrust, leaving behind a small mountain known as Chief Mountain; geology geeks call it a klippe and the Blackfeet call it Nínaiistáko and consider it to be sacred.

But forming Chief Mountain and the rest of the area didn’t happen overnight. It took nearly 60,000,000 years of alternating glaciation and warm periods before the land took on the form we know today. When the glaciers came, they would fill the valleys with ice, leaving just the tippy top of the mountains peaking through (“peaking through” – get it?). And when the glaciers piled up in the mountains, they slowly flowed down to the seas. As they flowed downhill, they scraped the sides of the mountains smooth and ground the rock below into flour. That’s why the valleys in the region are shaped like a U instead of a V and why the valley floors have very fine soil called loess.

Terms for parts of a glacier (Image courtesy  Luis María Benítez)

Terms for parts of a glacier
(Image courtesy Luis María Benítez)

That’s also part of why the area is known as Glacier National Park. The other part is because the mountains here are so tall and so far north, they used to catch more snow each winter than could melt in one summer. That helped the glaciers build and fill the valleys. When the last Ice Age ended about 100,000 years ago, the glaciers started melting faster than the snow could accumulate; as a result, the glaciers shrank. This process has gotten faster recently, thanks in part to climate change. In 1910, there were 150 glaciers in the park. By 2000, that had dropped to just 37. Today, only 25 active glaciers remain. And some scientists estimate that there may be no glaciers left in the park by 2030.

July 1 – Conjunction Junction

Today’s factismal: Markduk will meet Ishtar in their heavenly boudoir tonight.

If you ask an astronomer what the three brightest stars in the sky are, odds are she’ll tell you “Canopus in Carinae (the Keel), Sirius in Canis Major (the Big Dog), and Sol in the Solar System”. But if you had asked an ancient Babylonian the same question, odds are he would have told you that they were Marduk (which we know as Jupiter), Nergal (which we know as Mars), and Ishtar (which we know as Venus). That’s because when the Babylonians were busy inventing astronomy, they didn’t know the difference between a planet and a star; they thought that any light in the sky was a “star”. But they were able to track the “stars” and to keep track of their travels. Babylonians were among the first to predict such things as eclipses and solstices and conjunctions – times when two or more planets would appear to come very near in the sky.

Jupiter, known to teh Babylonians as Marduk (My camera)

Jupiter, known to teh Babylonians as Marduk
(My camera)

That last was the most interesting thing to them, outside of comets which were unpredictable and therefore had to be terrible harbingers of doom. How important were conjunctions? Out of the seventy tablets of Babylonian astrology known as the Enuma anu elil, a full twenty deal with the meaning of planetary conjunctions. And that means that the Babylonians would have loved the sky tonight!

If you go out just after sunset tonight and look low in the western sky, you will see two bright “stars” just touching. They were Marduk and Ishtar to the Babylonians; to us, they are Jupiter and Venus. Two of the brightest planets in the sky look as if they are colliding. To the Babylonians, it would have seemed to be an omen of amazing importance. To us, it is just cool. Now, even though Jupiter and Venus look like they are colliding, in truth, they are about four and a half times farther apart than the Earth is from the Sun, a distance of some 400 million miles!

Even better, if you watch long enough, you may get to see a shooting star. That’s because the Earth is crossing the path of comet Pons-Winnecke which sprays out tons of dust and ice during each of its 6.37 year-long orbits. As the cometary debris hits the atmosphere, it burns up as a small meteor. And if you’d like to cap the evening with some citizen science, why not count the meteors using NASA’s Meteor Counter App? It is free to download from Apple and Google and is easy to use. The data you find will be used by NASA to help protect us from the possibility of a really bit meteor hitting the Earth and becoming a terrible harbinger of doom. (See – those Babylonians were completely crazy!) To learn more, peek at:

June 30 – Whose Fault Is It?

Today’s factismal: The Cascadia fault stretches more than 600 miles from Canada to California.

Anything you want to see in Seattle is either uphill or downhill; there are no flat parts to the city. That’s because the entire area is being squeezed together by the Juan de Fuca and North American plates. That collision has created the vast Olympic and Cascade mountain ranges (and volcanoes such as Mt. St Helens, Mt. Hood, and Mt. Rainier); the hills of Seattle are just the little foothills before the big mountains. The subduction zone also creates lots and lots of earthquakes. On average, Seattle has a magnitude 7 earthquake about once every fifty years; the last one was in 1965. Even better, the Cascadia fault is expected to create a magnitude 9 temblor every 400 years or so; the last one was in 1700.

Thnderbird figures in many of the local legends about earthquakes (My camera)

Thnderbird figures in many of the local legends about earthquakes
(My camera)

But what is the Cascadia fault? It is where the two plates meet. This 620 mile long intersection runs from Vancouver down to Cape Mendocino and stretches more than 40 miles across. Because the fault is so large and because it typically releases the stored energy all at once, it is sometimes called the “Cascadia megathrust”. Call it what you will, the amount of energy and damage that this thrust can release is simply astounding. A typical megathrust earthquake releases the same amount of energy that the USA uses in a week; put another way, it has the same power as 32,000 atomic bombs! (But it pales before a hurricane which would take just one hour to release the same amount of energy.) The last megathrust earthquake created a tsunami that raced across the Pacific Ocean and destroyed much of the island of Honshu; the temblor also created a landslide that is known in local legends as “the Bridge Of The Gods”.

The giant whale on the back fought Thunderbird and created the mountains and lakes by a series of earthquakes (My camera)

The giant whale on the back fought Thunderbird and created the mountains and lakes by a series of earthquakes
(My camera)

The amazing thing about the earthquake is that we know so much about it. And that is mainly because people talked about it when it happened and the events turned into legends that archeoseismologists could study. Today, we don’t need to wait for the legend to be born to learn about earthquakes. All you have to do is tweet! If you have a Twitter account and feel an earthquake or landslide, please send a tweet and mark it @USGSTed. To learn more, flit over to:

June 29 – Whale Of A Time

Today’s factismal: Orcas are the largest dolphins which makes them the largest of the smallest whales.

Nature is confusing. Where people like to draw clean lines separating this from that, nature tends to smear things together. Dust becomes rubble becomes planets becomes stars. A pile of dirt becomes a hill becomes a mountain. And an individual becomes a subspecies becomes a species becomes a genus becomes a family. For an example of that last, let’s consider the orca, known popularly as a “killer whale”.

An orca from South America (Image courtesy Mlwelan)

An orca from South America
(Image courtesy Mlwelan)

If you ask the average armchair taxonomist about the orca, they will quickly point out that the orca is actually a dolphin and therefore isn’t a “real” whale. As usual, the armchair taxonomist is flat wrong. In history, dolphins were separated from “true whales” based mostly on their size; a typical dolphin is about as big as a human but a typical whale is as big as a whale. However, once you start looking at the biology, things get a little more complicated. For example, the dwarf sperm whale is just nine feet long and weighs just 550 lbs while the bottlenose dolphin can reach 13 feet long and weigh as much as 1,400 lbs. And the beluga whale is 18 feet long and weighs 3,500 lbs while an orca is up to 30 feet long and weighs as much as 8,000 lbs. So clearly calling something a whale or a dolphin is more a matter of custom than biology.

A penguin's-eye view of an orca (Image courtesy National geographic)

A penguin’s-eye view of an orca
(Image courtesy National Geographic)

Of course biologists prefer to avoid the question entirely and refer to dolphins, whales, and the often overlooked porpoises all as cetaceans which translates literally into “whales”. And once they’ve done that, they break the cetaceans into those like the blue whale that filter-feed (the mysticeti or “baleen whales”) and those like the orca that chomp down to chow down (the odontoceti or “toothed whales”). As a result, the lines that eh biologists draw are somewhat more in line with those not drawn by nature. And one of the ways that the biologists are drawing the lines is with the sounds made by the orcas. By listening to different groups of orcas in the Salish Sea, biologists hope to discover more about how orcas live and interact. To help them with this work, all you need is a computer and a pair of ears. You’ll listen to sound files from under the sea and then tell the biologists what you heard. To learn more, swim over to:

June 28 – Some Enchanted Island

Oododem made by the Salish people (My camera)

Oododem made by the Salish people
(My camera)

The Salish are Native Americans who live in Puget Sound. Their language is known as “lushtoseed” or “salt water language” due to their proximity to the ocean. Before Europeans settled the area, the Salish fished for salmon in cedar canoes and built huge lodges out of cedar logs. Some trees were turned into what we call totem poles and they call odoodem; the carvings on each pole tell a story about the carver’s family or their beliefs. Cedar was also used for baskets, hats, and even clothing! In addition, they farmed goats and dogs for their fur, which was spun into wool and woven into rugs and blankets.

June 27 – Silver Lining

Scientists do their best work when faced with contradictory results. If you always get just one result, then what you are investigating isn’t very interesting. But if sometimes you see one thing and sometimes you see another, then that’s Nature’s way of telling you that you are on the verge of learning something truly neat. And that’s what happens to Mary, Peter, and Daniel today as they look for the silver lining.

The atmosphere in Peter’s living room was just perfect for the Secret Science Society’s annual “Mad Science Movie Marathon”. While Mary, Peter, and Daniel indulged in huge bowls of popcorn, plates of caramel apples, and glasses of swamp juice (lemon soda with food coloring and raisins), classic monster movies from the 1950s ran on the DVD player and a fierce storm raged outside. They had laughed at The Mummy’s bad hieroglyphics, howled along with The Wolfman, and shivered as Frankenstein brought his creation to life with the lightning on the screen being echoed by real thunder from the storm outside. Naturally, just as the villagers gathered up their pitchforks to explain the homeowner association rules to poor, mad Victor, a bright flash of light and an ear-shattering crack told of a near-miss and the television and lights and all other power went off in the house.

“Don’t worry,” Peter said. “I know where the emergency flashlights are.”

“Rats!” said Daniel. “It was just getting good!”

“I wonder how long it will take to get the power back,” Mary mused. “And what will we do while we wait?”

“I’ve got a better question,” Daniel said. “Why is it dark?”

“Huh?” said Peter as he came back into the room with three flashlights.

“Think about it,” Daniel said. “When you look at a cloud on a sunny day, the cloud is white. Sometimes it even seems brighter than the sky around it. So why is it dark under a rain cloud? Aren’t they all the same thing?”

“I hadn’t thought about it,” Mary replied. “But you are right. Rain clouds are dark but regular clouds aren’t. I wonder why?”

“Well, it is too wet outside to go ask Mr. Medes,” Peter said. “Do you think my mom might know?”

“Might know what?” Peter’s mother asked as she came into the room with more flashlights. “I thought you might need these but I see you’ve got things well in hand!”

“Daniel asked something that we don’t know the answer to,” Mary said. “Why is it dark when it rains if clouds are white?”

“Well, there’s no shame in not knowing something. The only shame is if you don’t try to find out what the answer is,” Peter’s mother replied. “And it turns out that the answer to your question happens to apply to my work. So, yes, I know the answer.”

“What is it?” Daniel asked.

“Well, would you rather I told you or would you prefer to do an experiment?”

“Experiment! Experiment!” the three young scientists chorused.

“OK. Peter, go get that bag of marbles from your room,” his mother directed. “And I’ll go get some clear plastic bags from the kitchen. We’ve already got flashlights, so we’re all set.”

Peter quickly went to his bedroom and grabbed the bag of marbles. As he came back into the den, his mother returned with four plastic bags. Taking the marbles from Peter, she filled each bag with marbles before sealing it and handing it to one of the scientists.

“OK,” she said as she filled her bag with marbles. “This would work better if the marbles were clear instead of having that swirl of color in the middle, but it is close enough for our purposes. What I want you to do is shine your flashlight through the bag of marbles cross-wise so that the light goes through the ‘thin way’. What happens?’

“I can see the light but it is a bit fuzzy,” said Daniel.

“And the edge of some of the marbles gets bright,” added Mary.

“Good,” said Peter’s mother. “Now, what I want you to do is shine the light through the bag of marbles the long way. But, before you do, tell me – what will you see?”

“Probably the same thing we just saw,” said Peter. “The light will be fuzzy and there will be some bright edges.”

“I don’t know,” said Daniel. “Maybe having more marbles means that the light won’t make it through somehow.”

“Or maybe we’ll just see bright edges,” added Mary.

“Well, there’s only one way to find out!” Peter’s mother said.

What do you think will happen? Try the experiment yourself!

The three turned their baggies longwise and looked at the flashlight shining through. But instead of a bright light, they only saw a dull, fuzzy beam. The marbles had dimmed the flashlight beam just as clouds dulled sunbeams.

“Wow!” exclaimed Peter. “The light got a lot darker.”

“And most of the bright edges are gone!” said Mary.

“But why?” asked Daniel.

“The reason for this is the same reason that the bottom of the ocean is dark and that radio waves don’t travel very far in a nebula,” Peter’s mother said. “It is a type of physics known as optics. When the light from the sun or from a flashlight beam hits an object, three things happen: reflection, refraction, and absorption.”

“Reflection like a mirror?” Mary asked.

“Exactly! You may have noticed that you can see your face in a very still pond; that’s because some of the light that hit the top of the water was reflected back at you,” Peter’s mother explained. “The same thing happens with our marbles and with the raindrops that make up a cloud. Some of the light gets reflected back off of every raindrop. As you get deeper into the cloud or the cloud gets thicker, less and less light makes it through.”

“Oh, so that’s why rainclouds clouds are dark! They are thicker than other clouds!” Peter said.

“No, that’s only part of the explanation,” his mother replied. “There’s also refraction; that’s what happens when the light gets bent by the raindrop. Instead of traveling through and continuing in a straight line like a toothpick in an olive, the raindrop makes the path of the light shift a little so it looks more like a broken toothpick in an olive. And because the angle of the break is different for each color of light, when the angle is just right, you can get -”

“A rainbow!” Daniel said. “Is the bent light what made the edges of the marbles seem bright?”

“That’s exactly right,” Peter’s mother said. “Taken together, we sometimes refer to reflection and refraction as scattering. But reflection and refraction are only part of the reason that rain clouds are dark. The third reason is – ”

“Absorption!” Mary said. “Is that like when a sponge absorbs water?”

“Not quite,” Peter’s mother said. “With a sponge, you can always get the water back out by squeezing it. But when light gets absorbed by a raindrop, it gets changed into heat. That added energy might make the raindrop warm up a very little bit or it might be re-radiated as infrared light. And since we can’t see in infrared, that makes it dark in the center of a rain cloud and under one, too.”

“But what does that have to do with the ocean bottom?” Peter asked.

“You can think of the ocean as a whole bunch of raindrops jammed together,” his mother replied. “As the light goes through the ocean, some of it gets absorbed. Interestingly, the depth that the light makes it down to depends on the wavelength of the light. Colors like red have very long wavelengths and make it deeper into the ocean than colors like blue. In addition, water like to scatter the shorter wavelength colors like blue; that’s why the ocean looks blue – more of that color gets reflected to your eyes. Taken all together, the amount of light that you can see in the ocean drops by 90% for every 75 meters. So if the ocean was as deep as a skyscraper is high, the bottom floor would get only 10% as much light as the top one would.”

“Cool!” Daniel said. “But what does that have to do with your work?”

“I’m a planetologist,” she replied. “That means that sometimes I look at planets before they are born, when they are just big clouds of gas and dust called nebulae. The gas and dust in a nebula will scatter and absorb light just like the water in the ocean or the raindrops in a cloud. And by measuring how the light from stars behind the nebula is scattered and absorbed, we can estimate the thickness of the cloud and even learn what it is made of. We’ve found water, ammonia, formaldehyde, and even amino acids in nebulae across the galaxy. There are even some scientists who think that life on Earth started thanks to those amino acids.”


Just then, the power came back on.

“Well, it looks as if your creation has come back to life,” Peter’s mother said. “So I’ll just leave you three to your movies.”

“Thanks mom!” Peter said, his fingers already on the remote, ready to start the movie again as the three sat back down absorbed once more in the morality tale on the silver screen.